First-Generation College Students: A Guide to Resources, Advantages and Challenges

Student wearing a backpack and smiling in a school hallway

Over their lifetime, college graduates are projected to earn $1 million more than those who have just a high school degree. Yet, for many who do not have immediate family members who went to college, embracing the college experience can feel overwhelming. In fact, first generation students have a lower rate of degree attainment than their continuing-generation counterparts (those with parents who have completed a college education). Only 20% of first-generation students successfully completed a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrollment.

Thankfully, there are many resources available to help students break free from these statistics. If you are considering enrolling in college for the first time in your family’s history, here’s what you need to know about the process.

The Importance of First-Generation College Students

First generation college students have the unique ability to change the course of a lifestyle for an extended family. Often families that do not have a history of higher education can struggle to change their economic status. First-generation students who are successful at completing their degree have to overcome some hurdles that other students do not face, and this makes the accomplishment a huge achievement.

Advantages for First Generation College Students

First generation college students have several advantages that can make them successful in and out of the classroom. Some of these include:

1. Setting an Example

These students set an example to younger siblings and other young family members. This can be an advantage because it pushes the student to work as hard as possible in their academics in order to set an example of success.

2. Life Skills

A first-generation college student must figure out many things about college that their peers may not. Some examples of this involve the financial aspect of attending college, as it is likely their parents may not have finances set aside for attendance, or a set plan to help them achieve their educational goals.. Discovering scholarship options and how to fill out a FAFSA are just a few examples of this. Researching, applying, and enrolling to a school is something else these types of students may face alone. While it could be a challenging process, this can teach a number of practical skills that help the student later in life, including things like prioritization and work-life balance.

3. Scholarships and Admittance

When a school or scholarship program has stringent admissions or acceptance policies, having some sort of “hook” that makes an application more appealing or a student stand out from the crowd is helpful. Being a first-generation student can be that unique appeal. It shows that the student is willing to strive for something outside their comfort zone and can make it more likely that the student gets accepted for a program or financial aid. Ivy Coach indicates that many highly selective colleges actually seek first-generation students and give them preference over legacy students or relatives of alumni.

Challenges for First-Generation College Students

Being a first-generation college student is not without its challenges, including:

1. A Lack of Familiarity with the Process

Getting into college can be a complex process including testing, GPA requirements, and the overall college application. Students may need additional support from high school teachers and guidance counselors as they navigate this process.

2. Financial Struggles

Because first-generation college students do not have parents who went to college, they are on their own many times to navigate loans, scholarships, grants, and tuition costs. While well-meaning parents may help with college tuition, they simply do not have the background to help students understand financial aid. Filling out the FAFSA is a starting point for overcoming this hurdle and understanding financial aid options.

3. Feeling Out-of-Place

Students who are first-generation college students may feel out-of-place among their peers and may not feel they fit in the college scene. They also be navigating more work responsibilities than those who have parents supporting their time in school. In addition, 28% of first-generation students are age 30 and older, which means they do not fit the typical college student persona.

4. Guilt

Surprisingly, many first-generation college students feel guilty for their decision, especially if they leave their families behind to attend school. They may have been responsible for financial support of the family, or they may have contributed in another way, such as serving as the English interpreter for parents who are recent immigrants. They can also experience guilt for having more opportunities than their parents.

Resources for First-Generation College Students

While first generation college students do face some unique challenges, they also have a number of resources at their disposal. These are the students that admissions counselors and guidance counselors rally behind and want to see succeed. They also have a number of specific scholarship opportunities available to them, including:

1. IFSA First Generation College Student Program

This $2,500 scholarship is behavioral to first generation college students. It requires a 500-word essay about the student’s experience as the first in their family to go to college. The IFSA program is specifically for students who wish to study abroad.

2. EducationDynamics Scholarship

EducationDynamics awards one $10,000 scholarship to a first-generation minority student who is earning a two- or four-year degree at an accredited school or a certificate program in their field. It requires a 500-word essay about challenges the student faces. It does not require GPA information, so the essay is particularly important.

3. Imagine Dragons Origins Scholarship

Imagine Dragons, the Grammy-award-winning musical group, is available to first-generation students, refugees, and immigrants. The program has four $2,500 scholarships and is available to students pursuing a degree at any level. It requires an essay explaining the challenges the student faces because of their first generation or immigrant status.

4. Federal Grant Programs

Several federal programs, like the Pell Grant, cater to low-income students. Many first-generation college students fall into this category. Grants are money for college that does not have to be repaid. Those pursuing their first degree can apply starting with the FAFSA.

5. Federal TRIO Program

TRIO is a program designed to help first-generation students successfully move from middle school to college. It provides grants to institutions and community-based organizations that they can use to set up student services programs. Students can find TRIO programs in their area to access the help they need to navigate the college application and admissions process.

6. Work-Study Programs

Income a student earns through a job can impact their federal aid eligibility, but the work-study program income does not. This federal program allows students to take on-campus jobs that help lower their educational costs and provide additional income without impacting income recorded on the FAFSA. This can be a great way for first-generation students to not only earn income but also become part of the campus culture.

7. First in the Family

First in the Family is an online resource for first-generation college students. It provides inspiration as well as practical advice and help to navigate this world. It also has planning checklists to help students be prepared for their college journey.

Start Your Journey Today

If you are considering going to college as a first-generation student to earn your associate or bachelor’s degree, dig in deep. Talk to your guidance counselor or high school advisor to see what your options are, and work on keeping your motivation strong. You have many advantages but will face some challenges when you step foot on campus. Thankfully, there are many resources available to help you succeed.

Bryant & Stratton College offers personalized career education, and we are here to walk alongside you as you navigate the world of college for the first time. If you are a first-generation student, let our admissions team guide you through the process. Reach out today to learn what you need to do to apply and enter the college scene.

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